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Friend and Ally - Shibasaburo Kitasato and Robert Koch

"The Japanese… are so kind and cordial in their demonstration of hospitality", wrote Robert Koch from Japan in the summer of 1908. Together with his wife Hedwig, the Nobel Laureate (Medicine) had travelled to Japan to visit Shibasaburo Kitasato, his pupil and friend, whom he hadn’t seen in 15 years.

Kitasato worked with Robert Koch in Berlin from 1886 to 1892 and proved very successful in the fight against tetanus: the physician and bacteriologist from Japan was the first to succeed in growing the tetanus bacterium (Clostridium tetani) in pure culture, and together with Emil von Behring, who was later awarded the Nobel Prize, he developed serum therapy for the treatment of patients. The principle of passive immunisation was thus developed and continues to be applied today. During a plague outbreak in Hong Kong, Kitasato isolated the bacillus causing the plague around the same time as the bacteriologist Yersin. Many of Kitasato’s discoveries paved the way for modern immunology.

Kitasato initially worked with Koch at the Friedrich Wilhelms University. The Japanese government granted foreign scholarships only for a period of three years. At the end of 1887, Kitasato applied to the Japanese Interior Ministry requesting an extension of his stay. Mori Ogai, who worked with Koch at the time, supported the approval of the extension by Japanese authorities. On the German side, Koch stressed this need by proposing Kitasato for a promotion. Kitasato was the first Japanese and foreigner to be appointed Royal Prussian Professor. In 1891, he joined the newly founded "Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases" where Koch had been designated director, and which later on went on to be named after him.

When Kitasato returned to Japan in 1892, he continued to remain in touch with his German colleagues. Kitasato repeatedly invited Koch to Japan, and the visit eventually took place in 1908. After his arrival on 12 June, Robert Koch stayed in Japan for more than two months. Kitasato organised trips, receptions and sightseeing activities, and accompanied the Koch family the entire time. On this occasion, Koch also met Mori Ogai. On 16 October 1908 Koch wrote from the United States to Kitasato: "I’d love nothing better than to return immediately to Japan. But given my age, I will probably have to abandon the idea of seeing Japan once more."

In 2008/2009, the Robert Koch Institute also presented an exhibition "Robert Koch in Japan 1908-2008", in which Kitasato played an important role. The Japanologist Beate Wonde of the Mori Ogai Memorial, at the Humboldt University in Berlin, designed and organized this exhibition, which was first displayed in 2008.

Koch’s health was already on the decline before he travelled, but during the trip to the Kansai region he became ill. Kitasato was concerned and asked a chamber-maid, who was much appreciated by Robert and Hedwig Koch, to accompany the couple back to Germany. Kitasato made out a contract with Hana, the maid, initially for a period of three years, to look after and nurse his esteemed tutor back to health.

After Koch’s death in Baden Baden on 27 May 1910, Hedwig Koch stayed in touch with Japan through Kitasato. She returned to Japan in 1912 for a ceremony at the memorial. During the First World War visits were not possible and later on resources were scarce. However, during that time Kitasato supported Hedwig financially and received a portrait of Koch to thank him for this support, which to this date is displayed next to Kitasato’s portrait at the Kitasato Institute. Kitasato was always loyal to his former tutor. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the tubercle bacillus in 1932, he initiated a gathering of Japanese medical scientists in support of the Robert Koch Foundation. Kitasato no longer witnessed this event because he died in Tokyo in 1931.

The Kitasato Institute (currently comprising of a hospital and a private research center associated with Kitasato University, also named after the former scientist), and the Robert Koch Institute follow the tradition of their founders. They carry out modern fundamental research in the field of life sciences, aim at determining the underlying cause of diseases, as well as prevention and treatment possibilities, in order to significantly contribute towards the improvement of health.

More than 125 years after the first encounter of Kitasato and Koch, the Kitasato Institute continues to remain a special partner of the Robert Koch Institute. Delegations of scientists from the Kitasato Institute and the Robert Koch Institute meet on a regular basis. Since 2013, the Robert Koch Institute has an agreement with the Kitasato Institute/ Kitasato University to promote academic exchange. In 2018, this agreement was extended for an additional 5 years.

Date: 14.11.2018